NASA’s New Horizon Probe Captures Its First Images Of Pluto And Charon

By Brent McKnight | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

Pluto may not be an official planet anymore—revoking a celestial body’s planet hood still seems a bit harsh—but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a closer look at, and that’s exactly where NASA’s New Horizon probe is headed. The craft is still a year or so away from arriving at its final destination, but it’s already sending back impressive footage and breaking existing records.

The craft isn’t scheduled to be close enough to close up shots of the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon until July 14 of next year, but while it’s on the way, the team at NASA has pointed its telescope at the target and captured this film of the two bodies in orbit. Comprised of a dozen images taken from July 19 through July 24, this clip shows the moon revolve around the dwarf planet in a way we’ve never seen before.

If you look at this footage and think that Charon looks like it comes extremely close to Pluto, that’s because it does, it’s no trick of distance or perspective. The 750-mile in diameter satellite orbits the dwarf planet at a distance of just 11,200 miles. Our own moon is an average of 239,000, so it sounds like a weekend jaunt from Pluto to Charon is totally a reasonable possibility. You know, after we develop deep space travel and settle on Pluto that is. As a result of this closeness, the two bodies orbit the same central gravitational point, called a barycenter, and you can see this unique movement on display in this video.

Pluto CharonAt a distance of 265 million miles, these images are far closer than any similar ones that have been captured yet. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the principal investigator for New Horizons, said, “The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close-range imaging of Pluto — they were taken from 10 times closer to the planet than the Earth is… But we’ll smash that record again and again, starting in January, as approach operations begin.”

Though New Horizons has been working hard, it’s about to get a well-deserved breather. At the end of the month, on August 29, the probe’s controllers will put the craft to sleep. That sounds bad, how about, they’ll put it into hibernation, which sounds much more pleasant. This is four days after it crosses Neptune’s orbit, and they plan to wake it back up on December 6 of this year for a flyby. That will definitely be something to see.